When a spiritual teacher fails to put their students’ interest first, devastating spiritual and emotional harm can result.
A serious breach of trust or “boundary violation” occurs when a professional with specialized knowledge and power breaches the appropriate limits of the relationship between them and the person seeking their help.
Whether Buddhist teachers recognize ourselves as professionals or not, once we hang out our shingle (so to speak) as a spiritual leader we have made an implicit promise. Much like a therapist or lawyer, we have promised to always put the interests of the student (or congregant or client) ahead of our own. We have announced “Here, you will find a safe space.” We have said, “You can trust me.”
Harm caused by clergy and spiritual teachers is rampant. What can we—especially Buddhist and Zen teachers—do to prevent it?
When a patient is harmed by the actions of a medical provider, we call it iatrogenic harm. Iatros comes from the ancient Greek word for “healer “and genic means “caused by.” A psychopomp is a spiritual guide (Greek: psyche = soul, pomp = guide). So psychopompogenic harm means “harm caused by someone who offers spiritual guidance.” Abuse—sexual, emotional, spiritual, and financial—by clergy and spiritual teachers is rampant.
Sometimes it is dramatic and catches headlines. Other times it is more subtle, slowing damaging individuals and groups over decades. Whatever its form, it definitely deserves its own word. Identifying a problem is the first step towards addressing it.
OK, so I coined the word. A Google search on it says “no results found.” (Is there a prize for that?) But how do we recognize, respond to, and prevent it?
My sangha that has spent the last year and a half recovering from yet another case of Zen teachers’ abuse of power. We’d like to share what we learned.
In the late fall of 2020, our Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC) sangha was still recovering—spiritually, emotionally, financially, organizationally—from our split with Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ) over issues of teachers’ abuse of power. Then, just before Thanksgiving, a new issue came up for our now-separate group: Our GBZC Spiritual Director engaged in year-long secret emotional and sexual misconduct with one of his students.
We can widen our views of the types of relationships that are possible by comparing our habitual “entity” thinking with Zen-inspired “process” thinking. This may help organizations prevent or deal with abuses of power.
Recall that in “process thinking” we acknowledge that what we commonly perceive as “things” actually arise from activities and relationships (Non-Duality Part I). There are no static “essences,” and the world is in continual cycles of creation and destruction. The provisional “thing” I call “me” is no exception.